Nine Dragons—Power Struggle in Beijing

Under the Joint Governance of Nine Dragons, the Power Struggle in Beijing that started high and ended low. 
By He Qinglian on May 28, 2012

Since February this year, Beijing has become the world's largest center of rumors production and dissemination. As May arrived, details leaked from Beijing-approved insiders decreased gradually; nonetheless, observers could still tell from the signs that things have been changing favorably for the faction that supported Bo Xilai.

Of the limited pieces of information that had come to light, the most important was the report on May 25 by Reuters, quoting an insider source. It was said that in early May, the Communist Party of China held a meeting at the Jingxi Hotel of Beijing, roughly 200 persons attended. General Secretary Hu Jintao said on the meeting that the Bo Xilai incident would be classified as “criminal offense”, and an “isolated case”; he urged senior CPC officials to unite and guard against further intensification of affairs since former Chongqing Committee Secretary Bo Xilai was striped of his post. Reuters said the informants were three individuals with close connections to that meeting. If this information is trustworthy, then the “line struggle” approach that Wen Jiabao proposed to convict Bo Xilai after his case went public has already been abandoned.

If Party Central A led by Hu and Wen came to the final decision to charge Gu Kailai the criminal offense of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood, then the end for Bo Xilai could be one of the following possibilities:
  • the most serious case would be Bo and Gu were accomplices in the murder case. But it would be difficult to make this charge stand, to find direct evidence to prove that Bo was an accomplice in the case, unless Gu Kailai is unscrupulously made to accuse whoever they targeted;
  • the rather serious scenario would be, in addition to his being suspected of corruption, Bo had knowledge of the murder and intentionally shielded the culprit; or
  • Bo was completely unaware of the crime that Gu had committed
The second and third possibilities would be more likely. The level of punishment meted out would be decided after Party Central A gamed with Party Central B, led by Zhou Yongkang. It would not be right to over-punish; but to mete out too lightly a punishment, Bo's return would be highly probable, and that is the last thing Party Central A would want to see.

The above story has proved one thing: despite being in the disadvantaged in terms of institutional resources, the Bo Xilai faction, backed by Party Central B, tied with Party Central A in this round of power struggle. As a result, some observers became rather anxious. They figured that by granting Bo Xilai amnesty, Hu and Wen had effectively put a rope onto their necks, and they made efforts to remind the two in several ways. The writer would think that the way this ended was not what Hu and Wen—Wen in particular—wanted; they had no choice but to make do with it, though.

Why did Hu Jintao finally choose the solution least devastating for Bo Xilai? What were the factors that made this his only choice? These could be found by analyzing information that had been made public.

First, despite being the chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), Hu Jintao has only meager authority over the armed forces.

The Wall Street Journal ran a report on May 17 that quoted government officials, diplomats and military officers who had been briefed on the Bo Xilai case as saying that the two high-ranking officers questioned for their ties with Bo were “Liu Yuan, political commissar of the PLA's General Logistics Department, and Zhang Haiyang, political commissar of the Second Artillery, which controls China's nuclear missiles.” If Liu Yuan is said to have a weak influence on the military, then Zhang, with his years of building connections within the armed forces, has formed an elaborate web of ties [and cannot be treated lightheartedly]. Now that the political crime of “line struggle” has been given up, and Bo would be punished for criminal offense; affected parties like Liu and Zhang had weathered the storm.

Although Hu has the prestigious title of chairman of the CMC, he has virtually been sidelined inside the military and is even incomparable to his predecessor Jiang Zemin. Both Jiang and Hu had little connections in the military, yet the situations they faced respectively were different. During the Jiang leadership, the Princelings and Red second generation were still in the ranks of colonels. When Hu took over, many among these had already been promoted to the ranks of generals. Important posts in the military—those of the General Staff Department (GSD), the General Political Department (GPD), the General Logistics Department (GLD) and the General Armaments Department (GAD)—were basically taken up by the princelings and red second generation; their desire to interfere with foreign policy have been manifested through various channels for long. The most shocking of these manifestations must be Zhu Chenghu’s remarks: “if the Americans draw their missiles and position-guided ammunition on to the target zone on China's territory, I think we will have to respond with nuclear weapons," and that "we [...] will prepare ourselves for the destruction of all of the cities east of Xi'an. Of course the Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds ... of cities will be destroyed by the Chinese.”

And as for the most systematic of the manifestations, it would be Liu Yuan's comments about “New Democracy Theory” that appeared through various channels in recent years. Liu made those comments to honor his father Liu Shaoqi and emphasize his political legitimacy. These people never make reservations when criticizing Hu Jintao for his incompetence and airing their dissatisfaction with him.

On May 23, former U.S. ambassador to China Mr. Jon Huntsman delivered a speech at the National Committee of US-China relations in New York, and used his personal experience to illustrate that the Chinese military had not been under Hu Jintao's control: in January 2011 when Mr. Robert Gates, then U.S. Secretary of Defense, was visiting China, Chinese military abruptly arranged the test flight of J-20 fighter (Author note: it is thought that the J-20 fighter was manufactured with technology stolen from the U.S.).

Mr. Gates was Outraged at the test flight, which he deemed as a direct insult to himself and to the United States; he intended to call off the visit. Mr. Huntsman suggested Mr. Gates to ask Hu Jintao about this directly in the meeting held the following day. It turned out that Hu Jintao was completely oblivious of this. The incident made Mr. Huntsman realize that in China, a “divide…clearly existed between civilian and military leadership”; the military actually hid important matters from their head of state.

Second, Hu Jintao does not have enough authority to make all members of the Politburo Standing Committee obey him.

The so-called “Collective Leadership” model meant that members of the Politburo Standing Committee jointly exercise the supreme leadership rights of the CPC; the oligarchy model was devised to prevent the emergence of Mao-style dictatorship. There are in total nine politburo standing committee members in this round of National Congress, and so it could be called the "joint governance of nine dragons". When offensives were launched to weaken the power of Zhou Yongkang, Secretary of the Central Political and Legislative Committee, a politburo standing committee member and supporter of Bo Xilai, it was clear that Hu Jintao did not have the support of all politburo standing committee members. According to the report on May 13 by Financial Times, “insiders” were quoted as saying that Zhou had already conducted an internal self-inspection at the Central Political and Legislative Committee and transferred his power. But given that Zhou, as the secretary of the the Central Political and Legislative Committee, had in possession years of dark secrets of many other officials, he would not be publicly removed from power. However, there came another signal that indicated Zhou did not completely lose his power. Although Zhou did not win the seat of representative of Hebei of the 18th National Congress Party as he was supposed to, he obtained full votes in Xinjiang and became the representative of that region. From this unusual political arrangement, it could be seen that Party Central A failed to squeeze Zhou Yongkang out of the upcoming National Congress. This result revealed the influence of Zhou himself and his supporters at senior levels.

Moreover, of the Standing Committee members currently in office, only Wen Jiabao and Xi Jinping had publicly expressed their views on the Bo Xilai incident. Others, including Wu Bangguo, who chaired the NPC Standing Committee, and Li Changchun, who took charge of Cultural and publicity education, had been ambiguous on the issue. The most interesting thing was that the Writers Publishing House, a publishing house under direct influence of Li Changchun, presented in May the “Text of Comrade Mao Zedong’s ‘Speech Delivered at the Yan’an Arts and Literature Forum’, Copied with Handwriting by 100 litterateur and artists: a Commemorative Book for Collectors” (毛泽东同志“在延安文艺座谈会上的讲话”百位文学艺术家手抄珍藏纪念册), and the People’s Daily published a signed commentary that said, “universal democracy: Never was; never will be” and “bourgeois democracy is hypocrisy”. That article clearly targeted Premier Wen Jiabao, who had made repeated empty talks to promote universal values and democratic politics; and on May 21, Utopia, the base camp of Leftist comments, sent out to major media a strongly-worded email that entitled “Statement regarding the Bo Xilai incident.” The Statement claimed that the case of Wang Lijun was a setup, the most serious case political injustice since Reform and Opening, and urged the Central government to quickly redress Bo and Wang, and to severely punish the culprits of this injustice. The Statement ended by saying that, “Utopia has unwavering support for the line of Chongqing, whether in the past, at present or in future”.

Taken all the above information together, one could say that this world-shaking power struggle in Zhongnanhai did not accomplish what was intended and produced only some “half-cooked rice”. The struggle started with the three prearranged charges-line struggle, corruption and criminal offense-and ended in prosecuting relatives of the political opposition forces with criminal offense, the least devastating charge. It’s worrying not only because Hu Jintao, the general secretary of the CPC, has been restrained by various political forces when he made personnel arrangements in the 18th National Congress, but the future political situation of China has also become even more uncertain.